Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011

Driven By Character: The Sex Lives of Intellectuals

Boulevard Theatre's BECKY SHAW is Five Characters Caught In The Pull of Emotional Gravity On A Studio Stage

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Photo: Troy Freund /

The performance space of The Boulevard Theatre is black with vertical lines of various colors for contrast. The vertical lines aren’t really necessary. Neither are the placards with various words on the wall near the ceiling. The Boulevard is staging the Midwest premiere of Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw. There are a few things that happen offstage in the world beyond the characters—a mugging, legal action, sex and so on, but Becky Shaw is mostly just a process of watching five people interact with each other in various ways. So anything more scenic than black walls with which to contrast against the actors seems a bit excessive.

I was offered the opportunity to interview director David Flores before the show opened. I’m disappointed I didn’t have the time—it would’ve been really interesting to talk about the process that went into rendering Gionfriddo’s five contemporary East Coast characters. Without much going on in the foreground of the plot, Gionfriddo has plenty of room to render characters with a profound amount of depth. The dialogue is remarkably crisp—even comically poetic in sort of a conversational way. Here’s a quick look at the cast—

Anne Miller as Suzanna— As many times as Miller has taken the stage over the past few years, she’s never had an opportunity to play a character quite this verbally articulate. She’s playing a woman who has been reluctantly brought together with her mother by her adopted brother—a financial planner who feels the need to discuss the family’s dreadful state of affairs. Miller takes well to the unique style and cadence of the humor, fully adapting to Gionfriddo’s dialogue in a way that also informs on the character. Given more to do than she usually is, Miller shows deeper shades of versatility. When viewed in very simplistic terms, Suzanna'’s love for her nice guy husband and her attraction to her bad boy adopted brother feels very clichĂ©, but Gionfriddo balances this clichĂ© out in a much larger picture that features relatively complex characters. Miller captures the character’s conflicting desires in a way that acknowledges the character’s reluctance to confront them. It’s very tricky business to bring to the stage, particularly when events cause her to face the inevitable at the end of the play. Miller renders this complexity quite respectably.  

Joe Fransee as Max —Fransee has been getting increasing work in minor roles with the Skylight, which is nice to see, but one doesn’t get the full effect of his potential until he turns out in a role like Max with the Boulevard Theatre’s Becky Shaw. The character is a classic, callous conservative with ridiculously cogent wit. He’s also, very, very cruel. Managing to walk the very, very fine line between being a complete jerk and a charming gentleman is no easy task and Fransee tackles it brilliantly. Perhaps more so than any of the other characters in the play, Max is a very secretive and deliberately dishonest person. As such, he’s got a much firmer grasp on the darker edges of all of the rest of the characters in the show. Fransee’s hold on Max’s sense of confidence threatens to unbalance the rest of the cast—effectively allowing him to become the center of the cast. Thankfully, Flores has worked with the cast and a well-written script to create a balance that realizes the less flashy, less active elements of strength in much of the rest of the cast. The real challenge for Fransee here was not necessarily building up momentum as a jerk and an egotist before intermission (which he does quite well,) but believably revealing the character’s weakness without compromising the image of the character we were introduced to in the first scene.

Christine Lathrop Horgen as Susan— Christine Horgen plays the mother of Suzanna and Max—a woman who may have had something to do with Max’s crass conservatism. It’s slowly revealed just how much of an effect she might’ve had on Max Horgen’s relatively little time onstage is spent cleverly and subtly establishing the kind of persona that would’ve been so influential on such an impenetrably individualistic character. I associate Horgen with softer, more compassionate roles than this. Like Miller, it’s nice to see her put in a role that allows her to appear in a new light. Gionfriddo’s exploration into the nature of sex is explored a little bit in Susan as well. With her original husband passed away, she’s now seeing a much younger man—someone young enough to be her son. Suzanna is uncomfortable with the situation as you might expect, but Max seems happy for her, almost reveling in the fact that she’s still actively living the physical end of her life. It’s the type of thing adult children are going to have to get used to as lifespans continue to expand. Gionfriddo’s picture of human sexuality wouldn’t be entirely complete without it. 

Nigel Wade as Andrew—Wade has shown-up in various productions before, but hasn’t been seen quite as often as most of the rest of the cast. Here he’s playing a very compassionate guy who is also a struggling writer. He’s moved from working for a coffee house to managing an office. Wade holds an appeal as the character even as he misses some of the flavor of Gionfriddo’s humor. In a number of instances, the playwright captures the natural human tendency to find levity in trivia in the midst of dealing with a crisis. Andrew’s few instances of this don’t make it to the stage quite the way they should—it’s a minor detail, but the type of detail Wade will be able to pick-up om a little more with more exposure to this kind of script.  What Wade brings to the stage quite well is the character’s central emotional drive—a desire to help people that on some level is linked with his sex drive . . . Suzanna’s vulnerability is what drew Andrew to her and Becky Shaw’s vulnerability draws him to her as well. Wade does a good job of showing the character’s nobility masking other desires.

Rachel Lewandowski as Becky Shaw-- The least-known of the characters in the cast, Shaw is a woman who works at Andrew’s office. A conversation between Suzanna and Andrew long before she shows-up onstage firmly establishes Becky as being a bit fragile. And they’re setting her up on a date with Max. Lewandowski has a compelling stage presence. She doesn’t make it to the stage nearly often enough certainly not in a role this prominent, but she plays the character’s vulnerable side a bit flat—at least that’s the way it felt opening night. What Gionfriddo does with the character brings out a depth in her. Like every other character in the play, when we get to know Becky, we find out that once you get to know her, there’s a dichotomous opposite to her personality. She seems ridiculously weak at first—the date with Max goes predictably awful, but she won’t stop calling him. The reason he’s not answering those calls and the reason she keeps making them reveal a strength in her and a weakness in him that keeps the play interesting through to its final moments.

Boulevard Theatre’s production of Becky Shaw runs through March 20th. For reservations, call 414-744-5757.

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